Additionally, the native grasslands of the PPR are fundamentally important for livestock producers and their ranching lifestyle. Ranching, recreational hunting, and nature-based tourism associated with the native prairie, provide economic diversity and thus greater stability to rural economies. Further loss of native grassland is also an economically costly policy, as it brings additional, disaster-prone farmland into cultivation and thus creates taxpayer liability for the manifold subsidies that are associated with crop production on marginal land.
Lastly, conversion of native grasslands also has important impacts on critical, associated habitats such as wetlands. For example, in the wetland-rich PPR of North and South Dakota, 60% of the remaining 5.9 million acres of unprotected wetlands occur in native pasture and hayland. Cattle producers consider wetlands valuable assets when they occur in pastureland, because they provide livestock water and quality hay during drought conditions. If producers convert grasslands to cropland, wetlands become liabilities because they are obstacles for farm equipment. This puts them at greater risk of being destroyed or degraded by sedimentation and contamination from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. Unless we halt the loss of grassland, we risk losing both the native prairie and the associated wetlands and will invariably fall short of achieving important public policy initiatives such as the Bush Administration's goal of a net gain in wetlands.
Solution: a "Sodsaver" provision
Well-crafted farm policy could dramatically reduce the loss of native grassland. Ducks Unlimited proposes a "Sodsaver" provision in the next Farm Bill that would eliminate federal subsidy support of any kind – including direct, counter-cyclical, loan deficiency, disaster, and crop insurance payments – on any new cropland acres that are put into production as a result of breaking grassland that had no previous cropping history.
Why coin a new term – "Sodsaver" – when "Sodbuster" already exists in the current farm bill? First, Sodbuster has proven ineffective at stopping grassland loss because it applies only to highly erodible land, and farmers need only to develop a conservation plan to circumvent Sodbuster. Second, nobody wants to get "busted", and thus Sodbuster carries a negative connotation among landowners. Under Sodsaver, we want to make it clear that landowners may choose to break native prairie if they so desire. However, they do so with the full understanding that the profitability of crops grown on this acreage will depend on free-market economics, not agricultural subsidy and disaster payments.
Sodsaver would eliminate the federal government's role in subsidizing the conversion of these increasingly rare native grasslands. It would put the financial risk for conversion squarely on the shoulders of the individual, not society. In the process, significant taxpayer savings would be realized. In 2002, it was estimated that a proposal similar to Sodsaver would result in savings of $1.4 billion over 10 years. Sodsaver would be good conservation and good fiscal policy.
- Destroying prairie, a rare and important habitat vital to people and wildlife, is an unintended consequence of current farm policy that should be rectified in the 2012 Farm Bill.
- Continuation of current policy will fuel additional sodbusting and create costly ecological and sociological problems that will require additional funding to address.
- Current farm policy puts ranchers at a significant economic disadvantage with crop producers.
- A "Sodsaver" provision would level the economic playing field between ranchers and crop producers, largely eliminate the loss of existing prairie, and result in substantial savings to the U.S. taxpayer.